- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 14, 2011

To a passionate fan base in a basketball town, it seems like it has been a long time since the Washington Wizards were in the playoffs. Actually, it’s only been three seasons.

General manager Ernie Grunfeld may not be quite ready to predict a playoff run this year, but he wants fans to know that the team is improving. Better times for the new-look Wizards are on the way.

“Obviously, we had a game plan, and our game plan was to build a young, exciting team and do it through the draft, and we made a lot of changes,” Grunfeld said. “We were in the playoffs four years in a row, and the last two or three years haven’t gone the way we’d like it to.

“We have new ownership, and our new owner’s mandate was to break it down and rebuild the team and do it through the draft.”

In a Newsmaker interview Wednesday with editors and reporters at The Washington Times, Grunfeld shared his thoughts on the state of the NBA, the future of the team, and the growth of his players.

“We made the playoffs four years in a row,” Grunfeld said. “We were selling out, crowds were great, very supportive. We want to get back to that, so that’s our game plan and the long-term vision that [owner] Ted Leonsis has put in place for us and we’re trying to carry it out.”

The Wizards were a playoff team from 2005 through 2008, but injuries, trades and what Grunfeld refers to as the “locker room incident” involving Gilbert Arenas signaled the start of a rebuilding process. In the next three seasons, the Wizards won 19, 26, and 23 games. But the rebuilding process got the best of all possible starts when the Wizards selected point guard John Wall from Kentucky with the first overall pick last year.

“[Last season] was his first year, and he had a terrific year. He should have been rookie of the year,” Grunfeld said. “[The Clippers’] Blake Griffin, it was really his second year, but he didn’t play because of injury the first year, but John had an outstanding year.”

In addition to his talent and speed, Wall has shown exceptional maturity and leadership, qualities the Wizards need to see in a few more players, particularly Andray Blatche.

“Last year [Blatche] had a very good summer, then he broke his foot, and he missed 3 1/2 months,” Grunfeld said. “So he came in behind as far as conditioning, as far as being in shape. Then he kept getting hurt. We saw flashes of the things he can do, especially at the end of the year, the last 10-12 games he came back when he was healthy, but we expect to see improvement form Andray. He had a good summer, he’s matured, and I think he understands that we need him. He knows how he can play and now he has to do it on a consistent basis for the whole season.”

But any good team needs a mix of young players and veterans, and the Wizards just added two vets in Roger Mason Jr. and Ronny Turiaf. Mason played for the Wizards from 2006 to 2008, and spent time with the San Antonio Spurs and New York Knicks. Turiaf has played for the Knicks, Los Angeles Lakers and Golden State Warriors.

“I think [the roster] is coming around. We wanted to get veterans like that,” Grunfeld said. “We’ve had Roger Mason here before. He’s a good player, and we know what kind of influence he can have in the locker room. We wanted that kind of calming voice, and someone who’s been there before. Turiaf also brings a leadership and some toughness and that experience. We also have Rashard Lewis, so we have three veteran guys who have been in playoff situations before and have been around and we expect them to provide leadership for our younger players.”

The Wizards will open the preseason Friday against the Philadelphia 76ers, and several players have said they will be glad to get the two-a-day training camp sessions behind them and play against someone other than their teammates. But the final roster still has one huge question mark — the status of free agent shooting guard Nick Young.

“We’re talking to him and his representatives, and hopefully we can work something out,” Grunfeld said. “Right now, he’s out there doing what free agents do, exploring the marketplace.”

The Wizards have made Young a qualifying offer of $3.7 million.

“He’s falling behind by not being here,” Grunfeld said. “He’s missing training camp and everything is so condensed anyway because of the lockout that he’s missing valuable time. But we know what Nick can do and if possible, we’d like to have him back.”

Grunfeld and coach Flip Saunders have one year left on their contracts, but Grunfeld said it’s not something he concerns himself with. Grunfeld would like another season to watch the development of the team’s young players before jumping into the high-priced free agent market, which the team may do next season.

“It depends on who is available. If it’s the right fit for us, down the road, at least we’ve put ourselves in a position where we can look at it,” Grunfeld said. “If we choose to make a run for somebody, we’re in a position from a salary cap standpoint where we can do that.”

Calling himself a “a competitive guy” Grunfeld played in the NBA between 1977 and 1986 for the Knicks, Milwaukee Bucks and Kansas City Kings. He knows that rebuilding is an adjustment period, but he’d rather win now than later.

“We don’t know how long it’s going to be, but we want to see improvement right away,” Grunfeld. “We want to be better this year than we were last year.”